Torch in the Darkness: Part Two
Art by ellbot1998
I threw open the pantry door and got out three huge sacks made of leaves sewn together. Nobody ever went on a journey and ate things off of the field the entire time. One giant wooden jar to fill with preserves, mint leaves to keep the loaves fresh, and assorted medical berries wouldn’t be nearly enough.
“It must be somebody I don’t know, because she specifically referred to her as a ‘she’ and none of the female foresters we know fit the criteria.” Cerulean talked as I worked. This reminded me to immediately grab another two bags off of the top shelf and start doubling the rations for his traveling partner.
“Is it really that big a deal?” he asked.
“Of course!” I exclaimed as I reached back up to the top shelf and got an old book that was starting to fall apart. “Take this with you. It has almost certainly every herb, root, berry and fruit in its files, and I have long since memorized it.”
Cerulean nodded. “There’s still one bag left.”
“Thank you,” I said as I stuffed the tome in it.
“What about the meeting tonight? Won’t you be late?”
“Who cares anymore? I mean, she’s sending you on a journey. If the Creator sends you on a mission, it has to be urgent.”
“Actually, she didn’t tell me if it’s urgent or not. You seem to already have known about the sea. Where is it?”
“Every forester who knows about the ocean knows that the only way to find it is to travel in a single direction, any one, for days on end without ever, ever, ever turning around or straying in another direction. Not even once.”
“Should I start tonight?”
“We don’t know how important this is, so you might need to go right away. I’ll follow you to the edge of Deepwood. Don’t worry; I’ll explain your absence.”
My arms wrapped around Rubia.
“You told me a long time ago, after we knew that I was a Creator’s Child, that you didn’t follow me to warn others when I first came to your door. You followed me because you were interested in me. You always cared; even when you thought I could’ve been an enemy of the Creator!”
“You have no idea how rough my past was. How could I have passed up the opportunity of a new family, even one with just two members?”
My own face paled. When I responded, hers also flushed white.
“If I leave, you’ll be lonely again, and if I never come back...”
“Don’t say that, Cerulean!” she weakly sobbed.
“May the Creator protect me and guide me.”
“She may,” she recited the next verse of the prayer.
“She may,” I said, giving Rubia one last hug and walking out the door.
I shivered from the rain that had fallen into the nest I had made from fallen sticks. My stomach complained back to my skin. My paw flew over it, and I realized that I had had nothing to eat since the day before. It had been three days since my absolute ruin. I had lived on the wild plants, slept in the trees, stayed away from other foresters, detected Hunter traps and avoided the Hunters themselves successfully and without incident so far. It felt a little sad, especially when I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I had one once.
Before I had made the transition from Huntress to Forester, I thought.
My eyes came upon a fruit hanging almost at the end of a slightly thin branch. That golden apple, it looked so delicious, so fresh and organic... I had to eat it. But I was slightly startled by how long the limb was.
It’ll be worth it, I told myself and started putting one foot in front of the other on the bough. The snack gradually inched closer. I was almost there...
Then the snap came. A brief yelp escaped my mouth, but the branch I had been on was still off the ground. Another two limbs were keeping it up, albeit only a single foot in the air due to the broken branch and me weighing it down. My eyes wandered back to the apple (now nestled among a leafy cluster since it had fallen off too), and I took a few more steps.
As my paw reached out to the prize, I had forgotten about the first bough, which no longer had the fruit on it. My foot caused it to slide and fall off. Since there wasn’t enough weight holding the supporting limbs down anymore, they sprang back into normal position, thus flinging me into the air.
Time almost slowed down as a true scream rang through the air. My legs flailed wildly and desperately. Endless trees were spread throughout my vision: I was high above them. The momentum of my flight wore off, and I began plummeting headfirst. Not wanting for my head to feel the pain, I did my best to change position midair.
When I finally stopped crashing through foliage, my back took the full blow. I groaned and prepared to get up, when the apple fell on my head.
“You look hurt, are you okay?”
My eyes wandered up to the figure standing at my side, and as soon as I recognized him, I leapt onto my feet and bolted, fully ignoring my back’s pains.
It was the winged blue Xweetok.
When I was a Huntress, he had triggered an insatiable curiosity inside of me. How did he become what he was? Had he been one of us Hunters before? I saw him so many times. I gave up so many potential prized catches, all for a sliver of a chance to catch him.
Time after time after time, I had failed.
He must have gotten upset at some point at the fact that I was one of the Hunters, and he eventually resorted to chasing me down and slamming into me at any chance he had. This Xweetok was a strong one, too: I would always collapse under his momentum. One of us was always chasing the other. Of course, my interest was only piqued further.
He was my opponent and rival, yet an everlasting desire. If I were at the size I was at the present time, I always imagined that he would take advantage of that and square off with me one final time.
And win epically.
This possibility passed through my head so often, I instinctively had to flee.
“Wait! I won’t hurt you!”
It hit me. He didn’t know who I was; if I never told him, I would be safe. My paws scrambled to a halt.
“I asked you, are you hurt too badly? If you are, I know somebody who could help you.” He asked, his wings swaying with a slight breeze.
“I-I-I think I’m fine,” I answered, and started to walk off. His paw came down on my tail, preventing me from leaving.
“I’m on a journey. Do you want to come?”
My mouth gaped and started to stutter a little bit. But somehow, words escaped from it.
Words that I never wanted to hear.
“I’m Cerulean. The person who sent me on this told me to give this to whoever I met who wanted to travel with me.” He tossed me a key that was strung on a loop of thin rope. I inspected it for a second prior to hanging it around my neck. For a few moments, he looked at me with a new inquisitiveness, one similar to mine for him. I tensed as we made eye contact.
“What’s your name?”
“Faith,” I spat it out like a curse word. He blinked. It took two seconds after he opened his mouth for him to find the words he needed.
“Let’s get going, I don’t know how essential completing this mission is.”
There was nothing I could do to object, so I simply followed after him. For all the days, weeks, maybe months that we would spend traveling, I would be walking on ice: I didn’t dare to imagine what would happen if I slipped and told him who I was inside. From all of those scuffles, I knew he was brave, energetic and bold.
None of my prey ever had the same inner strength to rebel against a Hunter like Cerulean did. Now that I was no longer towering over him, he could finish me in an instant.
While he dashed ahead at a smooth pace, I half-heartedly dragged my feet behind him. I didn’t know where he came from, only where I did.
It was a heritage that he would definitely not be happy about.
“I’m getting tired. We should stop for the night,” I said to the Xweetok behind me with the red stripe. Faith nodded. As soon as I had seen her, I knew she was “different in the same way I was”, but I still didn’t get the “yes and no” part.
“Where will we sleep, though?” she replied in a defiant tone, the key around her neck shimmering with rain. I sensed something in her voice, however: a slight uncertainty that was about to swallow up all of her confidence.
“That’s the problem. I can’t say that I have actually been in this part of the forest before. We’re Xweetoks, so strangers won’t let us in their houses. I’ll tell you why later, but for now, I guess we should build or find something. If you hear footsteps other than our own, run.”
No trees loomed overhead, so the rainfall came down directly on us, instead of being redirected by leaves. Thorny bushes took the oaks’ places for the most part, only there was a large rectangle of barren ground in the middle. Slight streaks of black and purple ran through the mud.
“Let’s split up. Try to find a place to rest that’s already been made.”
Faith gave me a quick bob of her head and started running through the straggly grasses, searching for a den, abandoned shelter or something of the sort. I dug my claws into a tall oak and started to survey the area and try spotting a large nest. The thing with nests, since they’re in the open, they need to be camouflaged so a hunter can’t see the occupant, and so it’s difficult to find a used one.
All of a sudden, an otherworldly hum came from the skies. My companion was deep in the grass, so she was incapable of noticing the pod that was approaching the ground. I gasped and instantly jumped from my spot.
The clearing was a landing site!
My feet pounded against the ground as my eyes rapidly scanned the plants for Faith. The pod hit the ground as I found her sniffing at the single clump of misshapen flowers. My teeth gripped her by the scruff of the neck as she let out a tiny yelp. As she was fairly smaller than I was, and a lot lighter, it was hardly troublesome lifting her into the air.
“Had to do it,” I mumbled around the mouthful of fur.
I shivered, my sopping fur clinging to myself. Cerulean and I had discovered a large, used burrow, just big enough for us both. During the day, it had hit me again: where did he come from? Did he used to be a larger Xweetok, like I used to be? If so, then why did he hate us so much? I clearly remembered the raid he had held and how he ambushed me repeatedly. He didn’t seem to have any objection at all to us smaller ones. I opened my mouth to speak.
“Where are you from?” His head slowly turned to me as I spoke. He sighed.
“It’s a long tale. I lived for a long while before I knew so myself. Have you heard about a deity we call the Creator?”
I shook my head.
“She is a beautiful creature, the mother and maker of the woodland. All lived peacefully until the Xweetoks cut down a section of the forest and the Creator mutated and banished the two. They came back one day with their descendants and began hunting us down.”
It felt odd. I was looking at things in a forester’s perspective, after all those years of going after them, and I was also discovering how they explained the natural order of things. There is no “Creator”, this is just how things are, Cerulean, I thought, not daring to speak out loud.
On a different note, soon I would have the full experience of being the prey. Ugh, the things that I’m thinking.
“Did you wake up here? Do you have any memories of before you became this way?” Cerulean asked.
“I woke up here.” I answered his first question, but ignored his second one entirely. It was the classic: I wasn’t lying. I was merely leaving out some info. Cerulean seemed to be somewhat tired, or very eager to tell me about other things. Maybe just he didn’t see whether I had memories or not as important.
“In that case, you must be a Creator’s Child, just like I am.”
One of my eyebrows perked. “What do you mean... by ‘Creator’s Child’?”
“Sometimes, when a very kind and caring forester is going through life alone, the Creator will make another Neopet to accompany him or her in life.”
“Why did she make you, then? Doesn’t she dislike Xweetoks from when they cut down a few trees?” I played along with what he said, tiptoeing around the truth that was present in my mind.
“She is one of their species. She wanted somebody to understand. That is why she made me.”
I looked at him with my head tilted to one side.
“I’m sure she made you because she wanted me to have a companion during my journey. I hope you meet the Creator one day, too. I only assume that she was kind enough to make a second Xweetok, so that I wouldn’t be left alone among the rest of the foresters.”
I nodded. It felt that I was swallowing a truth that I didn’t want to, but I had to. A part of me was guilty for going along with where he thought I was from, but I knew how much he hated me before, and he didn’t know I was that same Xweetok. All I have to do is keep the truth down in there until this mission of his is over. Then, I can go somewhere far away from him. He’ll never know, and I won’t have to worry about spilling my past to him.
“Are you alright?” Concern was written onto his face. “Faith, you’re pale.”
“I-I’m fine,” I replied, and curled up facing away from him. I don’t want him to notice how scared I am of him, now that my life--my other one--is gone.
“Here.” He inched up to my side. His body, accustomed to the rain, was so much warmer than my own. I pressed up against him and sighed semi-happily with the heat, almost forgetting that I was supposed to be afraid of him.
To be continued...